Bonlieu flies to giant slalom gold
François Bonlieu and his sister Édith first came into contact with the mountains at a Pyrenean summer camp, falling in love with their new surroundings straightaway. The Bonlieu family promptly moved to the Alpine ski resort of Les Contamines-Montjoie, much to the delight of François, who recalled: “The first time I saw the snow I went crazy.”
Equipped with a pair of skis bought for him by his mother, Bonlieu quickly showed himself to be a natural, breaking into France's Alpine ski team and winning giant slalom silver behind Norway's Stein Eriksen at the 1954 FIS World Championships in Are (SWE) at the age of only 17. Known as “The Kid from the Plains”, Bonlieu's latest achievement earned him a new nickname: “The Little Prince of the Snows”.
A multiple French slalom and giant slalom champion in the late 1950s, Bonlieu also won the “K de diamant” and the Arlberg-Kandahar race at Chamonix in 1963, at which point sister Édith married into skiing royalty, tying the knot with 1960 Olympic downhill champion Jean Vuarnet.
In going for gold in the giant slalom at Innsbruck 1964, Bonlieu had to contend with a vociferous crowd of around 100,000, who had turned up expecting to see the Austrian skiers take the honours. Setting off first, home favourite Josef Pepi Stiegler had the fans roaring their approval after negotiating the 75-gate course in an impressive 1:48.05.
Next through the start gate, Bonlieu soon silenced the Austrian cheers, however, gliding his way through the gates with deceptive speed and ease to cross the line over a second faster than Stiegler, not that he was overly happy about his performance. “I did some stupid things,” he explained afterwards. “I went too wide at a gate at the top and I made another mistake at the bottom, going through a gate backwards.”
Even so, Bonlieu's time remained at the top of the scoreboard as the competition progressed, with his chances of claiming victory receiving a boost when Austrian favourite Egon Zimmermann, who had won the downhill three days earlier, took a tumble. Refusing to get carried away, Bonlieu said “There's still Karl Schranz to come!”
Starting 15th, Schranz, was unable to match the Frenchman's pace, finishing 0.38 seconds adrift but doing enough to dislodge Stiegler from the silver-medal position. On securing France's first ever giant slalom medal on the last occasion that the race would be contested over one run only, an ecstatic Bonlieu exclaimed: “I've been waiting for this for ten years!”
Finishing fifth that day was a 20-year-old compatriot of Bonlieu's by the name of Jean-Claude Killy, a fine performance that marked the start of what would be a glorious career.